Minneapolis' North Side is not getting its fair share of transit amenities, despite having a heavily transit-dependent population, a group of residents told Metropolitan Council representatives on Saturday.

At a packed meeting in the offices of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), bus riders said north Minneapolis lacks adequate shelters -- particularly heated ones -- and increased fares have strained already tight budgets.

"Riders notice the drastic difference between service and amenities in other parts of the city like Uptown and the Southside," said NOC's transit organizer Michael McDowell, who has been surveying transit riders (see video below). "And how the service is significantly better and they have more amenities at their stops than [in] north."

Panelists Saturday also demanded that the proposed Southwest light rail line, which will touch the southern tip of north Minneapolis, provide significant benefits for the area.

They found an ally in Metropolitan Council Member Gary Cunningham, who called for a new advisory committee comprised of people of color that would make recommendations to the council. He noted that the buses with the largest ridership -- such as routes 5, 9 and 19 -- are dominated by minority riders.

"If in fact we're the backbone of the system, then we should get access to these shelters, we should get access – and I mean now, not tomorrow, not next week," Cunningham said, adding that "there is no way that people of color have a voice."

Regarding Southwest light rail, Cunningham said north Minneapolis should obtain agreements in writing about what North Side improvements will follow construction of the line. He warned that promises regarding Franklin Avenue predating the Hiawatha Line were never honored.

"Otherwise, we're going to end up with what we've been getting," said Cunningham, who is married to Mayor Betsy Hodges. "And what we've been getting is cold bus shelters."

Amity Foster, who lives in Northeast but frequently takes buses at West Broadway and Emerson Avenue, said she avoids standing at the stop for very long because of safety concerns. It lacks adequate lighting, for example, or a trash can.

"If I waited for that same stop in South Minneapolis, it would be better lit," Foster said. "There would be better trash cans, there would be shelter. There would a sign that says the 18 stops here, catch it."

Metro Transit guidelines say that a stop must have 40 passenger boardings per day to qualify for a shelter and 80 for a heater to be considered. "North Side Minneapolis fulfills all of those requirements…But Metro Transit doesn't meet those needs all the time," Foster said.

Council Member Adam Duininck said the council has challenges with prioritization. It spends a lot of time prioritizing corridors and massive capital projects, he said.

"Meanwhile, we don't think about the operations and maintenance of what it is we have and how many riders we can gain and how much support we can get from the community by improving the maps, improving the shelters, improving access," Duininck said. "So that it is what we're working towards and I'm here to say I'm willing to do everything I can to make sure that we improve those standards."

Another council member, Jennifer Munt, said the council simply does not have the money to accommodate everyone. "Our problem is always that's it's in a zero-sum frame where we have to take from one community to give more to another," Munt said, noting that she is supporting legislative efforts to commit more dollars to transit.

More than 300 people surveyed said increased fares -- which rise during peak hours -- were a problem and a barrier to using transit, said Caleb Murphy, one of the rider panelists.

The fares were last raised by 25-cents in 2008. Murphy urged the council to consider some free or reduced-fare buses, as well as longer transfer times.

"The fares have risen and the transfer times have stayed the same," Murphy said. "So I'm paying more for a ride that lasts the same amount of time. In a carnival that wouldn't fly."

Duininck said the council is looking at standardizing the fare and eliminating the peak and off-peak price differences, a comment that prompted applause from the audience. He said they will be reexamining fare policies later this year.

On the Northstar commuter rail, Duininck noted, fare decreases were offset by increased ridership. "I'm with you 100%. I like the idea of looking at certain corridors as maybe reduced-fare corridors," Duininck said.

The event ended with a commitment from the four participating council members to support Cunningham's advisory panel idea. But the concept will still have to pass muster with the full council, which has 17 members.

Cunningham said dramatic changes are needed to bring prosperity to the North Side, which he argued has been the victim of poor public policy in the past.

Minority entrepreneurs in the area want to grow, he said, but don't have access to capital. He suggested that the council, the city and Hennepin County consider a capital fund "to ensure that our folks can actually participate in the marketplace at the same level as everybody else."

"There is nothing wrong with the black people in Minnesota," Cunningham, highlighting Twin Cities' worst-in-the-nation unemployment gap. "There's something wrong with the policies in Minnesota to get these perverse results."

Here is a video documenting McDowell's transit survey, which was played at Saturday's event: